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Commonwealth Magazine-October 2010

Taking his reform elsewhere

Mass. Corrections Commissioner leaves for Va. 

BY: Pippin Ross

Massachusetts Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke is leaving after just three years on the job to become the director of Virginia’s prison system. The departure was so sudden that it prompted speculation that Clarke’s exit was due to frustration with the slow pace of prison reform on Beacon Hill.

Clarke could not be reached for comment, but a statement he issued on Friday describes his job as Massachusetts corrections commissioner as a “highlight of his career.” He added: “We recognize the importance of preparing the culture within DOC to embrace effective re-entry of offenders back into the community. The administration and I share a passion for robust re-entry initiatives, knowing that properly preparing offenders for re-entry is vital to public safety.”

Clarke came to Massachusetts in 2007 from Washington, where he was secretary of the Department of Corrections. Prior to that, he spent 15 years as director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. He was selected by the Patrick administration because of his track record on creating programs to reintegrate prisoners into society as a strategy to ease overcrowding and recidivism.

An African-American, Clarke is known for regularly interacting with inmates to hear their descriptions of what is right, and especially, what is wrong with prison staff and atmosphere. When installed three years ago, Clarke said, “Prisons must focus on education and rehabilitation. It’s complicated and requires different methods for different offenders.” He crafted a five-year agenda to make prison all about prepping for re-entry into society with a support system in place. 

 The timing and style with which Clarke’s departure was announced startled many in the State House. Without warning to any Massachusetts officials, Virginia’s Governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, announced the hire last Friday. Brief weekend blurbs in local newspapers were trumped by an open letter written to Clarke by Darrell Jones, a Massachusetts inmate in his 24th year of a life sentence for a murder he insists he didn’t commit.  Jones, outspoken about what he describes as correctional officer-imposed “abuse and racism,” posted his letter on The Real Cost of Prisons blog.

The letter is an “insider’s” variation on how many “outsiders” are reacting to Clarke’s departure. “How could you not wait until the governor’s election was over to announce that?  Why now?”  Jones’s lengthy public letter asks. “Why did you come here and promise reform? Or is this the only state that cannot be reformed?”

Lois Ahern, founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization working on the financial and emotional cost of prisons, was also critical of Clarke. “It’s like a rat jumping a sinking ship,” she says. “It’s about money and moving up the career ladder. It’s nothing a few billion dollars diverted from the state’s prisons to education or actual job creation won’t cure…but then these people would be talking themselves out of jobs.”

But Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst said Clarke was hamstrung from the beginning. “He lacked the resources and the authority he needed to bring authentic reform,” Story says. “The general impression is that MCOFU (Massachusetts’ Correction Officers Federated Union, pronounced Mc-Koo-Fu) and the Legislature are both resisting the work needed to get inmates doing what’s basically a more compassionate and productive version of pounding rocks.” 

Just before Clarke’s arrival in 2007, MCOFU signed a new contract with the Patrick administration which, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, makes the union’s members the third-highest paid correctional officers in the nation with a maximum base salary of $60,303.

 “That made the union almost invincible,” says Leonard Engel, criminal justice policy attorney and coordinator with the Crime and Justice Institute. “The only staff to cut to save money became the key elements of reform, the people who do the programs, services, and mental health work that get people back on their feet and back into the world rehabilitated.”

Brian Jensen, the president of the  Massachusetts Correctional Officers Union, couldn’t be reached for comment, but in an interview with the Boston Herald this month he said: “Inmate suicides and staff assaults have been on the rise.” He blamed reforms begun in 2004 and continued under Clarke. “It’s been on the rise during the current regime and they continued to focus on re-entry and rehabilitation.”

 “It’s less the union than it is the Legislature that made the man jump ship,” says Michael D. Cutler, a criminal defense lawyer who works on murder appeals and mental health incarceration cases and who was legal counsel for the DOC in the 1970s. “Like a lot of people, Clarke thought Massachusetts was a progressive state, only to be amazed by the cowardice and inertia the Legislature has to respond to crisis.”

Cutler was referring specifically to the slow dismantling of the Crime Bill that included Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), and the repeal of the mandatory minimum sentencing law. CORI received minimal changes to how long offender records remain open, and mandatory sentencing wasn’t repealed but altered to only apply to people with two-and-a-half-year sentences in the state’s minimum security Houses of Corrections. It doesn’t apply to the mandatory drug-related sentences that data indicate are the source of prison overcrowding.

“Not only are lawmakers too scared to repeal a law many, many other states successfully have, but they need to ask themselves, ‘When will we pay attention to all of the research and data that shows that what we’re doing in our states’ prisons accomplishes nothing and costs a lot?’” Cutler asked.

A report issued last month by the University of Washington and published by the Pew Foundation says that the United States currently jails one in every 100 adults—the highest rate in the world. Doing so costs $50 billion nationally.

 While Clarke’s announcement was a surprise, the departure doesn’t seem to be. “If you are brought in to do reform, you couldn’t have entered a worse environment,” says Engel. “I can’t imagine who will even consider replacing him. Not here. Not now.”

The more delicate response comes from Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Mary Beth Heffernan, who says, “We look forward to continuing to build on the momentum he started.”

There is no confirmed date on Clarke’s actual departure.

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